In February 2020, as news about a novel coronavirus tracked from China to Italy to Seattle, I was in Alaska. Juneau, the state’s capital, sits between steep low mountains and the sea. Each morning I made coffee in my hotel and sat looking out the window, angling myself so that the lamp did not reflect me back at myself, but showed instead the darkness beyond the glass. I watched as the sun gradually raised the hillsides out of the black. When the light had resolved the slopes from a snow-covered blur to a blanket of Sitka spruce, I went running along the Gastineau Channel. It was always windy, the air raw with damp and sometimes sharp with driven snow. I ran regardless. That hour in the company of the turquoise water and a sky full of eagles was the only part of the day when I felt much clarity. By nine, I was at the Alaska State Archives, lost in file boxes and microfilm.
I am by profession a historian, and was in Juneau in the earliest days of research on a book about the Yukon River. There is a saturating, desperate feeling to learning a new space in the past. Coherence is elusive, disorientation the norm. The way out is through—through reading and listening and looking until the shape of a narrative flickers up from the waves of anecdotes and facts. So I read. About Yup’ik communities along the Yukon’s lower channel, and their distrust of the Russian Empire in the early nineteenth century. About Gwich’in nations simultaneously trading with and thwarting the Hudson’s Bay Company, as it stretched British influence across Canada to the upper Yukon. About men climbing the Chilkoot Pass toward rumors of gold on a Yukon tributary called the Klondike. About the price of a good dog in Nulato and raw timber in Whitehorse. By the time the archive closed and I stumbled into the evening twilight, it was hard not to wonder if my muddling had any purpose.
It was this feeling, of a mind overheating from trying to pull sense out of shadows, that made me think, improbably, of Friedrich Nietzsche. Improbable because Nietzsche is hardly a regular intellectual companion of mine. I last read him in graduate school, and remember not particularly enjoying the experience. But walking home one evening, trying to diagnose my fatigue, I remembered Nietzsche linking historical inquiry to insomnia, a comparison that felt apt. Back in my room, I looked up the source, an essay of his published in 1874 called On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life. It, unlike an archive, promised coherence. And Alaskan winter nights are long.
So it was that I spent early 2020, a year that in February looked no more interesting or eventful than any other in recent memory, reading Nietzsche and thinking about the uses of the past.
On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life is a slippery text, spiraling out from succinct observations into sometimes contradictory digressions, as if Nietzsche wanted to write a polemic and plausibly deny any given passage. But in my Alaska hotel, with the ravens croaking their sundown song outside, it did not take long to find his analogy to insomnia. The essay begins with a provocation: “To be sure, we need history. But we need it in a manner different from the way in which the spoilt idler in the garden of knowledge uses it, no matter how elegantly he may look down on our coarse and graceless needs and distresses. … We wish to use history only insofar as it serves living.” A surfeit of memory kills happiness and vitality. Forgetting is critical to life. A cow, for example, remembers nothing and is content. A person who could not forget would be half-dead, like “someone who was forced to abstain from sleep.”
Ah-ha, I thought. But Nietzsche was not describing the sensations of research. He saw a lack of forgetting as a social ill, a disease of modernity, caused by a claggy obsession with remembering. For him, only three kinds of history, in judicious doses, were “in the service of life.” There was monumental history, which gave men who wish to be great a dose of inspiration from the past. Antiquarian history offered traditions to lovers of custom. And critical history was a tool for casting off oppression by identifying its causes. Despite his provocation about the blissful cow, Nietzsche did not want people to forget everything. Too much amnesia, and society would have no sense of how to create anything new. The key was not to delve into the past simply for the past’s sake. Scholars “wise in only a single point” made society weak, doomed to “stolid mediocrity,” a cynical “race of eunuchs.”
A classmate in graduate school had summarized this judgment with a grimace: Nietzsche thought us useless wimps. Our devotion to knowledge was enervating. But I saw then, in that seminar room nine years ago and again in my Alaskan hotel in February, the merit of Nietzsche arguing that inquiry should serve “the health of a human being, a people, or a culture.” Before earning a Ph.D. and becoming a professor I had lived for some years in the Arctic, and learned there to honor utility and action. After nearly a century and a half, Nietzsche’s categories seemed rather musty—the essay has no concept of a reader who might want to know about more than men, great or otherwise—but the impulse to make history for something was inspiring. On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life did not confine the past to seminar rooms or dusty esoterica. It was muscular and necessary, part of making life in the present. Here was a reason to go to the archives, to spend your days in the confusion and strangeness of thinking, and imagining, your way into how others have lived.
Sometimes, too often, the past is also an invitation to imagine how others have died. I was not in Alaska to research epidemics, and yet they saturated the documents I read. Smallpox on the lower Yukon in the 1830s after Russian officials had carried the disease with them across the Bering Sea. Measles brought in waves by traders and missionaries. The 1918 pandemic. Wayne Eben, an Inupiaq man from Unalakleet, was eight years old when influenza arrived in Alaska. He remembered how “if you got the germs of it, just as soon as you go out, you drop dead. That’s the kind of sickness it was, that sickness.” Further up the Bering Sea coast, communities posted sentries to keep infected travelers away. Where isolation was less complete, people grew up with stories of their friends, family, neighbors “who died from the influenza, and that they were dropping so fast that they dug one hole and then buried 99 people in one grave.”
None of this offered a clear sense of the narrative I could tell about the Yukon. What the fragments did offer, however, bobbling up through the flotsam of barge routes and telegrams relating the price of fox pelts, was a sense of how strange it is to live unconcerned by contagious disease, and how rapidly a virus could rend through one kind of normal and replace it with something new. By the third week of February, I could not shake the sense that time was running down. The news discussed COVID-19 numerically; its transmission, or R-naught, was potentially exponential, the mortality rate maybe ten or twenty times that of the seasonal flu. I had a store of mental images showing what such numbers could do to a life, a hospital, a town, a city. I texted my husband, across the continent at our home in Rhode Island. We needed to fill the pantry. I was canceling my April research plans in Canada. I doubted the borders would be open in a month.
A colleague gently chided me for paranoia. The first shelter-in-place order in the United States was three weeks in the future; officially, everything was fine. But I kept thinking of Alaska’s orphanages, all the beds full after 1918. It was not special prescience on my part. The evidence was not lacking, as March neared, from epidemiologists and journalists reporting from Wuhan and Italy. The New York Times made open comparisons to the Spanish flu. Elders I know in the Arctic took in COVID-19 with a store of expertise so often dismissed, but they know what an epidemic is, and who brings it, and who is most likely to die from it. What we all shared was an informed imagination, the ability to conceive that much of what was normal—staying in hotels, shaking hands, air travel, open libraries—was provisional. An act of conjuring bounded by shards of what was known.
A lack of imagination is a kind of incompetence. It is a reliance on a known script, fitting this fact into that expected outcome, rather than entertaining the possibility that February might look foreign by May. Nietzsche saw this social somnolence as the result of monumental history in excess, a kind of mindless fealty. In an archive, it leads to disinterest, to overlooking things or not looking at all. You have to get lost in the past to imagine the narrative of circumstances that leads to the present. It is a variation of what living in the Arctic taught me: play out from the particulars of the environment to the possibilities for change. Imagine that the turn of the wind to the north will bring snow: Where will you shelter, in the blizzard? Imagine the drop in the moose’s shoulder indicates she is turning to charge: Are you ready? Imagine that a virus, a thing that is debatably not even alive, can roar out of nothing and bring society to its knees. What will you do?
Historical thinking is like muscle memory, but for the mind’s eye. It gives us reflexes for reacting to a changeable world, to anticipate the limits of our powers and the contingencies of our present lives, to not conflate familiarity with permanence.
In early March, I read more Nietzsche in spells between watching Outbreak and napping on the flights home to Rhode Island. The film, which appeared in 1995, has not aged well—Dustin Hoffman is matched against a deadly infection of exoticized African origins. My sleep was fitful. Waking had a leaden quality, as I remembered again what was happening in Italy. The United States, like dozens of other countries unable to imagine their susceptibility, seemed determined to follow. None of my reading in Alaska could tell me the exact shape of the next weeks, but they seemed portentous, a thunderhead on the horizon. Were we waiting for rain, hail, a tornado?
It was in this mental crouch, the contours of the pandemic just forming out of the shadows, that I read more of On the Uses and Disadvantages, not the bits about the benefits of history, but those about whom it is beneficial for.
The short answer is, not many of us. History, Nietzsche wrote, “bewilders” those “not strong enough to measure the past against themselves.” History is disadvantageous when knowing too much, thinking too much of the lives of others, prevents action. In short, the past is troublesome when it might cause an individual to feel a sense of responsibility or empathy for others. History is useful when in service of personal aggrandizement, inspiring acting “in service of the great and the impossible.” Thus it is he—always and only he—who is “without conscience” who makes history by knowing just enough of it to transcend its limits. “He forgets most things in order to do one thing; he is unjust towards what lies behind him and knows only one right, the right of what is to come into being now.” The use of history is in imagining the self into power, “blind to what has passed, deaf to warnings, a small living vortex in a dead sea of night and forgetting.”
In the forced air of my third airplane, Nietzschean bombast gummed together with Hoffman’s singlehanded defeat of a hemorrhagic virus. There was similarity to these improbably sundry bits of culture, the twentieth-century pop entertainment and late nineteenth-century philosophy: in both, change is made by sheer will. An adolescent fever dream of individual triumph. Maybe the obsessive doctor in his biohazard suit made history. Or maybe it was the strongman archetype, a figure who came to power unhindered by conscience so that anyone with conscience need not worry about ever having power. Either way, action is for the few; the rest of us need only watch and wait. A bedtime story to soothe the complacent.
Viruses do not listen to our tales. Shortly after I landed, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. For the rest of March, time seemed to cascade. What was clear, as March lurched into April, was that no Übermensch, be it the sort of infectious-disease specialist played by Hoffman or a heroic leader, would sweep in with a grand remedy. Watching one of President Trump’s endless, hollow press conferences—talk of a dead sea of night and forgetting!—I was struck by how Nietzschean he seemed, a man singularly unwilling or unable to think of consequences or justice. His actions were, to be sure, unburdened by prior events. But what was making history here was a pathogen, not a man.
I was still trying to research a book. In April, an endless month of dreary reporting, this felt particularly absurd. The hospital I could almost see from my home office had a military tent outside for COVID triage. Friends in Brooklyn sent photos of the refrigerated trucks, compensating for filled morgues, on their street. A thousand, then two thousand people a day were dying.
Without libraries or archives, I read what I could download, often dead explorers’ accounts. As a genre, they contain less adventure than you might expect, and more complaining about terrible weather and awful food. Unlike reading about the 1918 pandemic alongside COVID news, the lives of Sir John Franklin and Hudson Stuck and half a dozen others seemed utterly separate from mine: always outdoors, regularly in contact with strangers, cut off from news for months at a time. Also, I have never been a man, or been alive in the nineteenth century, or, for lack of hunting skill, been so hungry I ate my boots. Nor would these things come to pass.
From my desk chair, these long-lost lives did not offer visions of what might be, but entry into experiences I could never have. It is a particular kind of imagination, the mental squinting and head-tilt necessary to try and see a vanished world, how people inhabited it and found in it interest and terror and beauty. Doing so required moving the self as much out of view as possible, trying to peer into the dark glass of two centuries without distorting too much back into the frame. Sometimes history feels like a storehouse for the imagination, an invitation to engage contingency and possibility. Other times, it is a practice in empathy.
By May, the capacity to imagine the lives of others, to see them as requiring our consideration and compassion, looked not just like a thing useful when reading about grumpy men long dead, but a thing that was making its own kind of history. In the United States, we lived without national clarity or singular leadership, let alone a Hoffman with a miracle cure. Nor did we have the informed imagination of leaders like those in Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, New Zealand. They knew from the past—much of it from the recent history of SARS—to take the virus seriously.
In the United States, where the president could not bear to imagine power beyond himself or the needs of others, we were left to try and save each other with fellow-feeling. And for some months, we did. Despite inconsistent messages about masks and who was at risk—Did young people die? Children? Only the elderly?—most people did their best not to send waves of harm into the world. The skills necessary for life were those of medical workers and grocery stockers, delivery drivers and mail carriers. For months the majority of us forwent the rhythms of school, leisure, worship and simple social joys not just to protect ourselves but to shelter people we never met and never will. The COVID-19 spring was a rapid example of empathy put to work.
Nietzsche thought history was useful because it gave a few terribly great people the knowledge to make it new. I wonder if it is not more a way to practice thinking beyond ourselves—and to understand that thinking beyond ourselves is also a world-historical force. The protagonists are the messy lot of us all. For any of us can act with care, and any of us can use history to imagine life beyond the window, hoping to see there more than our own reflection.
Photo: Influenza 1918 – Harry & Carrie Dott, Alaska State Archives